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Allen: Remembering George McGovern

The world is a little brighter, more just, and more merciful because of George McGovern. Happy 100th birthday, George.

Recent McGovern appearance
George McGovern speaks during the McGovern Conference on the campus of Dakota Wesleyan University in this 2011 file photo.
Republic File photo
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As the director of the McGovern Center at Dakota Wesleyan University, one of my responsibilities is to re-focus and revitalize the memory of Sen. George McGovern. This is my joy and privilege. Sen. McGovern was born 100 years ago this summer (July 19, 1922). He won the Democratic presidential primary 50 years ago in July of 1972. This October, 10 years will have transpired since his passing. This 100/50/10 pattern point to 2022 as an appropriate time to reflect upon McGovern’s life and legacy.

Sadly, many remember George as little more than a big political loser. His monumental defeat in the 1972 election would have been a heavy emotional load for anyone to bear. Yet, he was resilient and bore the agony with dignity and humor. “For many years I wanted to run for the presidency in the worst possible way,” he told an audience a few months later. “And last year, I sure did.”

And yet, the depth of McGovern’s character is most evident in what he did post-defeat. George went on to serve eight more fruitful years in the U.S. Senate for a total of 18. Then, as a former history professor, he then went on to teach in numerous prestigious American and international universities.

George was eventually appointed by President Clinton to be the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Agency. There, he worked to develop the World Food Programme (WFP) and became one of the most effective crusaders against poverty and hunger the world has ever known.

McGovern’s concern for hunger began much earlier. During the Second World War, he served heroically as a bomber pilot flying B-24’s out of a base in Italy. There he was shocked and dismayed at the sight of Italian children begging for and fighting over scraps of food.

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This is an excerpted version of George McGovern's acceptance speech at the 1972 Democratic National Convention in Miami, where he was nominated to run for president.

In 1960, when McGovern lost his first bid for a seat in the U.S. Senate, the newly elected President Kennedy assigned George as director of the Food for Peace program. George wanted to be named the Secretary of Agriculture. Yet, he threw his shoulder into this less-prestigious position. It was as Director of Food for Peace that he oversaw the donation of millions of tons of food to developing nations and was a key player in the establishment of the WFP.

McGovern won a seat in the Senate in 1962 and there he worked in concert with his friend Bob Dole to pass legislation to address world hunger. A WFP webpage reads, “Together, Dole and McGovern launched America’s first global initiative dedicated to feeding hungry children: the McGovern-Dole International Food for Education and Child Nutrition Program. The program put America’s mark on the belief that children should never have to forgo education because they are hungry. Humanitarian agencies like the U.N. World Food Program could now stock school meals programs overseas using U.S. crops and leverage financial and technical assistance from the U.S. government. Since the program’s inception, it’s reached more than 40 million hungry kids abroad.”

In 1962, McGovern had an audience in Rome with Pope John XXIII who said to him, “When you meet your Maker, and he asks you, ‘Have you fed the hungry and given drink to the thirsty and cared for the lonely?’ you can answer, ‘Yes!’” For their efforts, in 2008, Dole and McGovern jointly received the prestigious World Food Prize. Today, the World Food Programme is one of the most successful humanitarian agencies in the world.

Joel Allen.jpg
Joel Allen, chair of the Department of Religion and Philosophy / Director of the McGovern Center.

Catherine Bertini, director of the WFP for 10 years, was McGovern’s close associate there. Not only is Catherine a Republican, she campaigned for Nixon in 1972. Catherine remembers fondly how George would tease her for campaigning against him. But McGovern and Bertini were inseparable, and they labored effectively together to end hunger. In 2020 the WFP was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for its effective and heroic world-wide campaign. We can reasonably claim a good deal of that credit for McGovern.

These efforts were not in vain. In 2015, due in no small measure to the WFP, for the first time in human history the percentage of persons living in extreme poverty fell to under 10%. This is the McGovern legacy. Tragically, much of that progress has been eroded due to COVID and Putin’s horrific war with Ukraine. Once again, hunger is on the rise and the world looks to the legacy of the McGovern to inspire an effective response.

I had the opportunity to visit with George on several occasions. In the fall of 2011, I was the new religion professor at DWU and George welcomed me. The civil war in Syria was just heating up. We had several conversations in the McGovern Library about the brutal al-Assad family which continues to control Syria. George knew Hafez al-Assad and described to me how he tried to convince Hafez that to truly find the respect he desired on the world stage, he had to display a genuine commitment to human rights. Unfortunately, Hafez and his son Bassar have continued to ignore George’s warnings and, with assistance from the Russian military, much of their country still lies in ruin.

George cherished the teaching of Jesus that the person who saves their life must lose it, but the person who loses their life will find it. To George, this describes the paradox of servant leadership. A person who gives themselves away for the good of others finds life’s deeper purpose. But the person who hangs on to life loses in the end. George displayed this principle throughout the arc of his life. Even after several personal tragedies, he continued to give himself away in service to his country and world. This is the McGovern legacy.

Perhaps the most important biblical passage of all to Sen. McGovern was ensconced for years on his Senate office wall. Micah 6:8 says, “What does the Lord require of you? Nothing but this: to do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with your God.” As a young man, McGovern had been transfixed by the realization that the biblical prophets were calling their audience to be engaged in the pursuit of justice and mercy. This prophetic call fired his soul and illuminated his life.

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George McGovern was a man of faith and conviction who worked tirelessly to make life better for “the least of these.” He was decent and kind to friend and foe alike. George saw things clearly and humbly encouraged others to join him. George was able to have respectful and productive friendships with political opponents. His daughter Ann once told me that her father had a way of showing respect and interest in listening to viewpoints on many issues and people responded positively. The world is a little brighter, more just, and more merciful because of George McGovern. Happy 100th birthday, George.

— On Sept. 22, 2022, the McGovern Center at Dakota Wesleyan will celebrate his 100th birthday with a day of events and a banquet. To see the schedule of events and speakers and to register, go to www.dwu.edu/mcgovernday.

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